A Critical Evaluation of the 2014 M.A. Thesis of Joshua Holman MillerPosted: January 25, 2015
This post is probably going to raise less general interest than most posts on this site. It’s a critical analysis of a 2014 Master of Arts thesis from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, entitled The Rhetoric of Gay Christians: Matthew Vines and Reverend Nancy Wilsons as Exemplars, written by one Joshua Miller. You have been warned.
The second half of the thesis centres around Vines’ infamous 1 hour Youtube clip. The thesis is notable for various reasons, including its numerous grammatical errors, bias, and audacious claims. But in my opinion, the most notable problem is the lack of critical analysis of the exemplars’ rhetorical arguments. Such a flawed thesis raises questions about the quality of education provided in America’s universities today.
So does the thesis actually fail? In assessing whether the thesis fails in its goals, one first must ask what the goals were. The rear of the thesis reveals that it was written for a “M.A., Communication Studies (Rhetoric) ‘14”. The title suggests the goal is basically to explore the rhetoric of two gay Christians. Surely this means the thesis should include evaluation of the strength of their rhetorical arguments? On p. 182 Miller almost states this, writing “Because both Vines and Wilson identify as gay Christians, my evaluations of them are also evaluations of rhetoric produced by gay Christians.” And on p. 188 Miller talks of his thesis; “… illuminating the debate between traditional, liberal, and queer readers of the Bible…”. The most damning statement though, is the final sentence of the abstract (p. iii). The abstract in full, states –
There is a view of gay rights debates that pits Christians against gay rights advocates. According to this perception, Christians oppose gay rights, because the Bible condemns homosexuality as a sin, and those who support gay rights do so using purely secular arguments. However, this perception of the gay rights debate is flawed and overly simplistic because not all Christians oppose gay rights. In fact, there are multiple interpretations of biblical texts that support homosexuality and have caused a gay rights debate within the church that is as complex and intricate as gay rights debate outside of the church. This thesis examines the gay rights debate within the church and, specifically, investigates the biblical arguments used by two individuals, Matthew Vines and Reverend Nancy Wilson, to convince others that homosexuality is not a sin.
A reader might wonder whether Miller changed his mind about his goals, mid-project, and forgot to update his title and abstract. In his “final remarks” on p. 187, Miller wrote –
Too often, the discourse surrounding gay rights pits Christians against homosexuals and precludes the possibility of gay Christians. By examining the rhetoric of gay Christians, the proceeding chapters illustrate that the discussions concerning gay rights are more complex than the simplistic assumption that Christians believe the Bible condemns homosexuality. This thesis has enhanced rhetorical understanding of gay rights rhetoric by examining queer and liberal interpretations of the Bible and how individuals deploy those two interpretations publically.
The final outcome is that Miller omits to critically evaluate whether his exemplars’ claims are valid. Rather, Miller looks at Vines’ approach in terms of how he delivered his arguments, EG by considering genres of rhetoric, consciousness-raising etc and by evaluating whether Vines meets the definition of a prophet. I believe that Miller did not fulfil his goals adequately.
Miller’s Poor Analysis of the Critiques of Vines Video
Miller does reflect on some of those who sought to refute Vines (pp. 161-169), however only briefly and superficially, and tending to mischaracterise or misunderstand them. Alluding to one critic, Miller writes for example (pp 161-162);
… members of Vines’ audience resisted his message. In particular, because this poster did not believe that homosexuality and Christianity were compatible, he claimed that Vines’ arguments were incorrect and immoral. This poster foreclosed the possibility of the gay Christian, instead of allowing for it.
On p. 161, Miller makes reference to Dr James White’ 5 hour audio critique of Vines’ video (Miller refers to him as Rev. James White, rather than using his usual honorific). In the referenced work, White points out numerous flaws in Vines’ presentation, yet Miller lists none of them specifically.
Miller is somewhat dismissive of Vine’s critics, characterising them as requesting the impossible (pp 162-163) –
While indicating that his evidence was biased, individuals who refuted Vines’ speech also demanded more evidence. This left Vines in an impossible position. On one hand, if he provided evidence, he would be accused of subjectively searching for evidence. On the other hand, if he did not provide evidence, he would not be able to prove his argument.
Miller surmised (p.163) during this analysis that –
All of these responses [from Vines’ critics] indicated [they felt] that two years of research were inadequate for Vines to be able to gain an understanding of the Bible in relation to homosexuality.
For the traditionalists, Vines’ two years of research was not significant to generate any new claims in the biblical debate about homosexuality.
This is an illustration of Miller putting words into the mouths of the critics, who tended not to state that 2 years is insufficient, but rather had other objections. In fact, in his book, Vines later addressed this very question of whether he generated new claims, writing “I am not a biblical scholar, so I have relied on the work of dozens of scholars whose expertise is far greater than my own. My goal has not been to break new ground, but to bring credible, often-overlooked insights to light, and to synthesize those insights in clear and accessible ways for a broad audience.” (God and the Gay Christian, pp 2-3). Vines is basically in agreement with his critics on this point, yet Miller seems to miss this.
Miller continues in his reflection on Vines’ critics, claiming (p. 164) they complained that Vines –
… had done too little and too much research to make an argument about what the Bible said about homosexuality.
Too much research? Miller offers no direct citations of such criticism. Has anyone claimed that Vines did too much research? I suspect not. Miller chooses to ignore claims from Vines’ critics that he was factually incorrect on various matters. Miller has tended to dismiss the critics based on the dubious claim that Vines would never be able to escape their criticism.
Miller’s Unsubstantiated Claims
The charge that Vines’ critics say he had done too much research, and that 2 years research is insufficient, are not the only unsubstantiated claims Miller makes.
Miller makes another poorly substantiated claim on p. 56 when he writes “The sole purpose of the Christian anti-gay movement was to prevent the lesbian and gay movement “from gaining any more political ground.” Miller neglects to consider Christians who are not politically inclined, and who simply wanted to obey their God as they saw Him, or who were seeking to avoid God’s judgement. Again such a claim was inappropriate for a thesis. Miller makes much the same mistake again on p. 65 when he writes “… gays and lesbians were punished for it [AIDS] via anti-sodomy laws.”
One of his more outlandish claims is found on p.154; “Vines demonstrates radical commitment to God and the biblical text.” This controversial claim looks rather weak if the reader reflects on Miller’s statement on p. 167, that Vines “questioned the assumption that the God believed homosexuality was a sin”. Assumption? The Bible presents heterosexual relationships as the Christian norm. The Bible repeatedly portrays homosexual practise as sinful (Leviticus, Romans etc), and never presents it in a positive way. How then does Vines demonstrate “a radical commitment to God and the biblical text”? He doesnt. Rather Vines claims that St Paul – the author of much of the New Testament didnt really know what he was talking about, and Vines rips the soul out of the core Christian belief that the Bible is God-breathed. And is it appropriate for Miller to use the word ‘assumption’ in this context? No. He has not taken the neutral position that would be expected from someone conducting such an analysis.
This bias also shocks me. I thought such an analysis should at least pretend to be impartial. Miller has a tendency to voice the thoughts of others in a framing of words that sound like his own thoughts. This can be confusing in terms of knowing for sure whether he is merely citing what someone else thinks, or whether he means to imply he agrees with them. EG p. 164, or p. 22 where Miller writes “King David was also bisexual.” In such examples it’s not crystal clear whether Miller believes the claim himself, or whether this statement simply reflects the context, which is the opinions of the person he is referencing at the time. But even when it’s clear that the writings are Miller’s own thoughts, the bias is jarring and seems out of place. Also confusing is that rather than following convention by using words such as ‘argues’ or ‘claims’, to refer to the controversial statements of others, Miller tends to prefer the word ‘indicates’. EG on p. 23 Miller writes of the (unlikely) suggestion that Bible characters David and Johnathan had a gay relationship, writing that “Wilson tells her queer narrative of David and Jonathan. She indicates that for David and Jonathan, it was love at first sight.” Since when do we write of what a controversial statement as being what someone has indicated, unless we trust their judgement?
We see more of this bias on p. 154, when Miller writes that Vines “invites his audience to understand that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality.” Invites them to perceive? Invites them to believe? Invites them to imagine? No, Miller appears to take Vines’ word as Gospel! How can Miller properly evaluate rhetoric, if he doent look at it objectively? On p. 159 Miller is even more blatant. He writes –
In the beginning of his speech, when he shifted between the traditionalist and the gay man, Vines certainly presented fluid understandings of his own identity. … Once Vines enacted several, seemingly, competing and contradictory identities, he showed his audience that identities that they previously thought were incompatible in fact were compatible.
Note the use of the word ‘fact’ to refer to something so controversial, and something that lies at the heart of the thesis itself. This is known as begging the question, and is a critical logical flaw.
Miller’s Factually Incorrect Statements
And this leads us to another problem – Miller making factually incorrect statements. On p. 189, Miller alleges that “Vines … was excommunicated from his previous church …” Miller repeats this assertion on p. 158 and 182. Miller perhaps reached this conclusion from a misleading NY newspaper article, which stated that Vines was “forced” to leave his home church in Kansas. But a newspaper more local to Vines, the Wichita Eagle (2014/06/07), indicated that he was not forced to leave. And in his book (cited above, p. 164) Vines implied that it was his choice to leave, after ongoing civil discussion with church members and making no mention of excommunication; “After it became painfully clear that our church wouldn’t be a supportive community for me anytime in the near future, my family and I reluctantly left.”
Update: A Response From Miller’s Institution
In early 2015, I raised the above concerns with the University, pointing them to this blog post. They replied in part –
I believe that his work in his thesis titled “The Rhetoric of Gay Christians: Matthew Vines and Nancy Wilson as Exemplars” is very well-written, thoroughly researched, and makes a unique contribution to the field of rhetorical studies. His study uses historical research and close rhetorical analysis to show how gay Christians such as Matthew Vines and Nancy Wilson use language persuasively to reconcile homosexuality and Christianity, two aspects of identity widely assumed in American culture to be diametrically opposed.
Yes, Miller undertook a lot of research. Yes it makes a unique contribution. Well written? That last one is a matter of opinion – what about all the typos? So to gain a Masters degree, do you simply need to write something unique that is well researched, and that has elements of being well written? Doesnt that mean a high school student could do it? What if it’s deeply flawed or deeply biased or doesnt really reflect the title? Does that not matter? They continue –
Although Mr. Miller’s work exhibits several strengths, one of the most notable is the charity that he exhibits towards all “sides” in this debate. The high quality of this work has been recognized by others in the Department of Communication Studies, including his committee members and those who named him the 2014 Outstanding Graduate Student. Work from Mr. Miller’s thesis has been accepted for presentation at national-level conferences as well, further evidence of its quality and intellectual integrity.
Yep, so long as it has some good elements, it seems they are not bothered by the flaws. Sigh…